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I caught up with Susanna on the first day of moving to Level 2 and quickly realised her charismatic personality and strong physical presence is a match for the imposing environment in which she paints. She is energetic and vibrant and as she begins to tell her story it really comes as no surprise to hear that tramping, skiing, and even live deer recovery are past facets of her life. Her seemingly innate relationship with nature means she is at home in the Mackenzie’s rugged beauty. You might find her sitting in a camp chair painting out amongst the tussock; if the wind is keen she may be hiding under the matagouri; or you may find her painting from her ute on bitter days. Intently studying the mountains, she decides on where she will focus her attention and lightly sketches the outline of her next piece.

Susanna lives alongside Lake Tekapo; the lake, tussock and mountains are her sprawling backyard. Throughout Level 4, aside from the solace found in cooking for her family, she used the time in lockdown to paint. From day one Susanna kept a visual diary of things that drew her attention or provoked a moment of reflection, minutiae that she gained comfort from; this in turn encouraged her to continue painting, recognising that she often painted her way through challenging times.
Rather than focus on whether there would be a market for her work in the future she focused on the joy and pleasure that she personally gains from painting.

Reassurance by Carolyn McAtamney, Director of McAtamney Gallery in Geraldine, that her exhibition would be held from 11 November – 23 December 2020 gave her further impetus to paint. The lockdown gave Susanna unhindered time to focus on her work, albeit with a reduced colour palate, as access to art supplies was limited and she was restricted by which of her paints hadn’t dried out. Although, counter-intuitively she found this limitation gave her a greater freedom to play with colour.

Essentially, pragmatism has dictated the way in which Susanna’s artistic style has emerged, and the confidence that comes with age has allowed her greater freedom to adhere to artistic technical norms less rigidly. Initially working with oils, she moved away from the medium when she discovered they were too messy and difficult to use if painting from her vehicle. Now she paints with a mix of watercolour; gouache a thicker, opaque watercolour that gives some ‘heft’ to her work, and then she may well add some acrylic or graphite for good measure. At the heart of her paintings though are the underlying layers of drawing, going well beyond just a sketched outline. ‘I always start drawing the work, and then I go into using paints as an extension of a pencil. Drawing is my basis for everything – probably what I do is technically weird.’

I comment that all the lines on her drawing are reminiscent of a topographical map and Susanna quickly agrees. She recalls being constantly chided for having too many lines when training at Aoraki Polytechnic under formally trained Dutch painter Paul van den Bergh, whom she respected deeply. Other than those needed for capturing movement in the initial stages of her work, he encouraged her to curb their use. She worked on responding to such critique, but once she left the course, increasingly frustrated with her inability to rid herself of the delinquent lines, she realised that they were in fact a part of her style, so gave up the fight and embraced them.

The detailed drawing is a foundation to her work and from there she begins to work with her paints, instinctively creating the colour palate. The initial work is carried out in situ. After the ‘harsh awe’ of the Mackenzie she loves to come back into the gentler environment of her small bedroom studio in Kimbell where she looks out to her Clydesdale horses, Betty and Billy. From a photo or sketches in her workbook she ensures the accuracy of the main landscape features and then allows herself creative licence to play with the scene before her. With several works always on the go, Susanna will put a piece aside, coming back to it later with fresh eyes, working with it until she is satisfied that it is finished.

Susanna’s path to becoming an artist was not linear, though with a mother who painted, and renowned Golden Bay artist Enga Washbourn her maternal grandmother, there is perhaps a sense of inevitability. While art was something that she particularly enjoyed in her seven years at Craighead Diocesan School, it wasn’t until marriage brought her back to South Canterbury, after working and adventuring for some years, that she began to address her growing desire to paint. Training has come in two distinct phases for Susanna – one formal and one less formal – both, however, are equally significant.

Through a serendipitous comment made by her hairdresser, Susanna was put in touch with three young South Canterbury artists, John Badcock, Ben Woollcombe and Mike Deavoll. What ensued was seven years of life drawing in a ‘cold, old warehouse’ on a Wednesday night. Despite being initially ‘nervous and scared’ of working with these ‘good artists’, Susanna, with a tendency to jump into the deep end, launched herself in and found the experience not only beneficial from an artistic point of view, but she recognises it as being ‘a real lifeline for a full-time parent’. The three artists supported and encouraged her, ‘but being men they weren’t in your face – so you’d work in the background and then they’d give you some sensible advice’. It is these men she attributes to ‘really getting her going’ with her art and for teaching her keen observational skills.

After some years of this informal arrangement, however, Susanna felt she needed more formalised training to give a greater depth of understanding and a firmer foundation in her craft. There was also the sense of desiring the legitimacy that a piece of paper could offer. She laughs at the idea now – ‘Why should a piece of paper make me any more an artist than someone else?’ She loved her two years at Aoraki Polytechnic and valued the input of her tutors. She recognises her time as significant, especially instilling in her the necessary disciplines and work ethic essential to being a working artist.

Susanna now takes on commissioned work along with exhibiting. She has had two exhibitions at the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru and is currently working towards her second exhibition at the McAtamney Gallery in Geraldine. The support and encouragement of gallery Director Carolyn McAtamney is greatly appreciated by Susanna. Carolyn has pushed her to branch out and work with other subject material, particularly still life. Susanna is keen to explore this more. ‘Very useful in the winter months,’ she smiles.

It is her mountain paintings that I am constantly drawn to though, and I comment that despite the ruggedness, intensity and drama of her scenes, she manages to capture a calm serenity. ‘I think that’s absolutely correct,’ she concludes. ‘It’s a solid peacefulness. It’s safe, nature goes on – I feel as if I belong when I’m out there – I feel it’s a reason for being human…I don’t know. Maybe it gives me peace and that’s translated into the work…’

You can view Susanna’s artwork at the McAtamney Gallery, Geraldine 11 November – 23 December 2020.

Words Ruth Entwistle Low Images Mark Low